Who can deny that things to come are not yet? Yet already in the mind there is the expectation of things to come.
—St. Augustine, Confessions
It is as impossible to imagine the end of time as it is impossible to imagine our own deaths. Yet we are morally obligated to make the attempt. Denis Donoghue writes in The Arts Without Mystery, his collected and expanded-upon 1982 Reith Lectures, that Nietzsche believed “the motive of art is to be different, to be elsewhere. Presumably,” Donoghue continues, “he meant to be different not only from other people but from one’s ordinary self.”
And here, perhaps unsurprisingly, Nietzsche’s vision of both genesis and apocalyptic allows us to handle the unimaginable like a worry stone by making the aesthetic leap into another identity through fiction. It is much easier to imagine the death of a fictional character than your own. It is much more readily achievable to imagine the collapse of a literary world than our own. In fact, short of direct revelation or informed speculation, imagine is all we can do.
In a more recent example of how the imagination engages the apocalyptic, Slavoj Zizek following Frederic Jameson, infamously quipped that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. He delivers the observation as counterintuitive, as if it is something astonishing, but it makes good sense. Films about the end of the world typically do not force us to engage with the granularity of a specific socio-economic dispensation but instead allow us to tap into a vast imaginative space which has its own literary lineage and therefore aesthetic grammar.
The imagined end of the world is more coherent to us than imagined specific social shifts because the apocalyptic is depicted in more generally comprehensible forms. There probably is not a more preeminent scholar of these forms than the British literary critic Frank Kermode, who confirmed in his The Sense of an Ending the profoundly fundamental human desire for coherent ends and beginnings. Our interest in apocalypse, Kermode writes, “Reflects a deep need for intelligible Ends. We project ourselves—a small humble elect, perhaps—past the End, so as to see the structure of the whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot of time in the middle.”
This desire for intelligible ends forms the beating heart of British writer Paul Kingsnorth’s work. Kingsnorth began his career as a journalist writing about large civilizational themes such as climate change and population shifts. In the last decade he has written a trio of novels in the key of the apocalyptic, each set in a different historical moment and each playing with the grammar of ultimate ends. In 2014’s The Wake, a man struggles to survive and make sense (the two are often deeply entwined in Kingsnorth’s work, as they are in life) of the disastrous consequences of the Norman invasion for the Anglo-Saxon peasantry.
The Beast, published in 2017, is set-in present-day England, where a man is stalked by an unknown creature whose presence in the isolated moors is surely an allegory for our current ecological dread. The most superficial way to approach these works is to read them as critiques of our consumerist culture: large empires, both military and economic, foist their cruel logic on helpless populations, destroying cultures, people, and the environment in the process. But within the context of apocalyptical forms, these books do something a bit more ambitious: they sensitize us to the mystery of time, to the riddle of ends and beginnings.
Kingsnorth’s most recent work in the trilogy, Alexandria, is his most conceptually ambitious by virtue of its being set a thousand years in the imagined future amidst the few remaining members of a religious community who very well could be the last humans on earth. They are being stalked by a skinless, eloquent, humanoid creature whose primary task is to convince the remaining humans to willingly volunteer to have their consciousnesses uploaded into digital cloud storage and live out the rest of their disembodied existence in an artificial city known as Alexandria. The creature, called “K,” is able with the assistance of a deity-like artificial intelligence known as Wayland (it seems to exist nowhere and everywhere at once), to appear to the humans as something they desire in order to lure them in. To the young girl el, the creature appears as a cat. To the hot head lorenso, as his forbidden lover. To the elderly leaders of the diminished order he appears as youth itself.
The plotting of Alexandria is pulled taut between the ultimately destructive desire to “ascend” from the embodied world and escape into an artificial utopia and the moral commitments the fictional community has made as survivors and caretakers. A transcription towards the end of the novel of an argument between a mother named Sfia and the creature K reveals the tension which animates the plot of Kingsnorth’s trilogy. A frustrated K explains to his quarry:
In Alexandria, all is clear. Take the mind from the body, walk out of the clumsy, messy shell and the spark is released. The minds there are like particles, always attracted to each other, feeding from each other, merging, endlessly evolving. Nothing is unknown, nothing is opaque, everything is clear, transparent like glass. Everyone is the equal of everyone else, kinks in individual minds are evened out by exposure to the whole, and the whole, together, is more productive than you could possibly imagine. Ah, what will be achieved there, Sfia! It is pure human potential, sheer as a red cliff as sunset. It is what God intended. Perhaps it is what God made.
Sfia responds by approaching K with a familiarity and intimacy which startles him. They argue for a moment about how unwise it is for K to ignore his physicality, before Sfia says to him:
Yes! You are afeared by your body! You are afeared by bounds, walls, limits. By your very skin, outline of yourself. You are afeared of all things you cannot be. You think that what limits you denies you. You do not see that bounds are what make you. We push against them, and they make us sing! Ah, and you are shaken. Poor creature. You took my young man, you try to take my girl away. I should be angry with you, but I am only sad for all you do not know, all you cannot be.
From the exchange it is easy to see why Kingsnorth has found readership with conservatives, liberals, and progressives alike. The overarching plot might serve as a warning about the dangers of man-made climate change, but Kingsnorth’s prognosis emphasizes all the buzz words that conservatives love: limits, form, self-control, and prudence. As the remaining humans suffer through their survival, a proto-religion becomes apparent through the scrim of the monologued anxieties and fears of the characters. A mish-mash of pantheism and Taosim, inflected with recycled symbology from more ancient (and presumably now lost) religions, the “Way” of the survivors and their veneration of a supernatural “Lady” figure feel less like the symbolic articulation of a path to redemption and more like a desperate attempt to retain some semblance of meaning in an overwhelmed world.
It is a patchwork of occasionally coherent fragments used to make sense of the sorry state of things. But it does not do much more than that. We can sense the thinness of the ideology in the anguish of the young man lorenso, who lusts after a married (although it is unclear what the term might actually mean in this particular context) woman and is told by a male authority figure known as father:
It can be hard bein man here. this is Ladys world with mothers laws. but this is as it is now. this is old balance of Way rightin after long age of Man, it is what must be and should be. and there is no womyn here for you, i know. only sfia and she is with nzil and these bonds cannot be broken or things fall. this is your stone, lorenso. all there is now is for you to chew it. this is your work in this world.
lorenso is eventually convinced by K to make the ascension to Alexandria, where his stone will be plucked out of his mouth and all his bodily torments cease. Presumably the solipsistic moralism of suffering without hope of redemption was not enough to keep him tethered to the earth. It is a shame for loresno, because as the novel progresses Wayland stops communication with K and eventually seems to disappear altogether, along with Alexandria. Up to this point the book has been building tension towards the question of human survival, a “will they, won’t they” flirtation with annihilation. But the novel actually culminates in a kind of Pagan Revelation, a Green Götterdämmerung which does not so much resolve the tensions of the plot as introduce a larger and largely incoherent mystery.
It is by far the weakest part of the book, in which Wayland triumphantly returns as a kind of presiding Brahman spirit to emphasize that “all you think is a story” and to implore humans to “abandon maps.” The best that can be said about the novel’s climax is that it flirts with the notion of what Wallace Stevens called “The Supreme Fiction,” when he wrote that “the final belief must be in a fiction.” This does not necessarily mean that we put our spiritual faith or rest our psychological well-being in things we understand to be untrue. What it instead means, at least in a literary sense, is that we create fictive objects as stand-ins to represent that which we understand to be fiction (Kermode gives the examples of “infinity plus one” and imaginary numbers) in order to draw greater coherence out of the plot itself.
In other words, fictive symbolic ends are meant to serve the pragmatic purpose of lending further form to what preceded it. In this context, Alexandria fails. And necessarily so. The anti-metaphysical pantheist values which Kingsnorth explores in most of the text exist in tension with the very notion of larger resolution, which requires a metaphysics. Things cannot resolve themselves from within but require the resources of a larger context in which, finding a home, they become illuminated.
However, other tensions exist within the book that are more positive. For instance, how the novel keeps daring us to read it as prediction instead of symbol. All of the scientific facts or climate journalism we read urge us to read the Alexandria as a quite literal prediction, but its identity as a work of art perpetually delays direct correspondence with reality. We might sense in this rift the powerful tension between chronos and kairos, or the passing time of “one damn thing after another” versus the fulfilled time we find in Mark 1:15 and Matt. 16:2-3. Alexanderia, in other words, dares us to read it as a thinly veiled socio-political tract, meant to warn us that ecological apocalypse and the end of humanity is near.
But the nature of the aesthetic imperative works against this certainty, constantly delaying the end so that we can imaginatively participate in it. In a crude sense, everything indicates that Kingsnorth wants the apocalypse to be imminent in his work, but instead, by the nature of fiction itself, the end is always immanent. The connections between the literary interpretation of kaironic immanence and actual theology are beyond the purview of this essay, but a good place for the interested reader to turn might be Cyril O’Regan’s 2009 Père Marquette Theology Lectures, published as Theology and the Spaces of Apocalyptic.
With all of this fairly abstract searching of the ideas which animate Alexandria, it might be appropriate to end with some praise of the gorgeous language of the novel. Perhaps not quite as experimental as the reconstructed Anglo-Saxon of The Wake, the characters in Alexandria nevertheless speak a luscious patois of ancient words and neologistic terms. It is easy to get lost in the rhythms of this language, which often reads like Anglo-Saxon nature poems:
Above me, Birds begin wheelin in a gyre of Winds, takin shape of speakin wheel. Turn, Gol, Petrol, Cumrant, circlin over me and whell begins turnin. And before me Greenrok, great and loomin, haulin over me in shadow now, waves washin on its blak teeth. Greenrok, home of all Birds, stone of singing, stream of Erths song to Water and Sky.
The terrible beauty of Alexandria is lodged here, in the wild words themselves, which take on the quality of what Walter Pater called a hard, gemlike flame. This beauty is a reminder that the eschatology Kingsnorth sketches is not simply ecological or psychological. This is really about the grandeur of birth, the nature of the ephemeral, and the profound mystery of beginnings and ends. Of time itself, even. Whatever faults Kingsnorth’s work might have, its greatest strength is how it works on us to sensitize us to this mystery.